“Faster, higher, stronger” restrictions on social media at the London 2012 Games

As the Olympic Torch travels down the east coast of Britain and preparations for the opening ceremony kick in to high gear, with live farm animals, a replica Glastonbury Tor and rain clouds all being brought in for the occasion, organisers and followers of London 2012 are increasingly turning their attention to a new issue, that of social media’s role in the Games of the XXX Olympiad.

With the number of Facebook users climbing towards the 1 billion mark, and Twitter reportedly on its way to having 250 million active users by the end of the year, it is hardly surprising that the 2012 Games are being touted as the “first social media Olympics”. While this has its benefits, it also poses a problem for the International Olympic Committee (“IOC”) and the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (“LOGOC”) of how to ensure exclusivity for the sponsors and broadcasters who have, in large part, funded the Games. As Alex Huot, the IOC’s “Head of Social Media” (a position which in and of itself shows how times have changed since Sydney hosted the Games back in 2000), told the Huffington Post: “We are at the dawn of a new age of sharing and connecting and London 2012 will ignite the first conversational Olympic Games”.

Well conversation has certainly been ignited, but it has not necessarily been of the type organisers were hoping for. There was considerable outcry earlier this year when the IOC released its “Social Media, Blogging and Internet Guidelines for participants and other accredited persons at the London 2012 Olympic Games” (a copy of which can be found here). Although the Guidelines allow athletes and other accredited

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persons (including coaches, trainers and “Games Makers” (otherwise known as volunteers)) to take part in social media by posting, blogging and tweeting their experiences, such posts, blogs or tweets must be in the first person, in a diary-type format and not for commercial and/or advertising purposes. These restrictions led some commentators to question whether fans would be prevented from receiving Twitter updates on what their favourite athlete is eating in the lead-up to their event. But, rest assured, it is now clear that you will be able to track your Olympic hopefuls as they carbo-load the night before, just so long as that bowl of pasta they are tucking in to is from an accredited Games sponsor.

Still photographs taken within Olympic Venues by athletes and accredited persons for personal use can be posted online, but no video or audio of the events, competitions or any other activities occurring at the Olympic Venues can be uploaded or shared using any social media platform or website. Perhaps in response to the – ahem – alleged debauchery of Olympics past, more stringent restrictions have been placed on athletes staying in the Olympic Village who will not be able to post any video taken inside the village and will need to gain consent from any person appearing in a photo before they can post it online. Volunteers are also subject to their own set of additional rules which are set out in a password protected area of the Games Makers’ area of LOCOG’s website and reportedly include a ban on disclosing details of their location and the location of athletes and dignitaries. This has prompted some volunteers to pull out, which could perhaps have been foreseen by organisers because where is the fun in working for free if you can’t brag about it to your friends?

More recently, reports emerged that these social media restrictions may extend beyond athletes and accredited persons to include spectators themselves. The terms and conditions for ticket-holders state that:

Images, video and sound recordings of the Games taken by a Ticket Holder cannot be used for any purpose other than for private and domestic purposes and a Ticket Holder may not license, broadcast or publish video and/or sound recordings, including on social networking websites and the internet more generally”.

LOCOG representatives have refuted suggestions that the intention of this term is anything more than to prevent unauthorised commercial uploading and sharing of images taken at the Games, and have stated that enforcement will be done in a “common-sense” and “pragmatic” way (as reported by the BBC). But not everyone is convinced. In an article last week, the Sydney Morning Herald noted that one reported method to enforce this restriction is banning people from using smartphones in wi-fi hot spots at the Games venues to prevent them from posting images online. This would be a bit drastic, not to mention odd given the amount that has been spent to provide 500,000 wi-fi hotspots around London for the Games, but it is as yet unclear whether organisers will implement more moderated measures to prevent spectators from sharing personal images and recordings of the Games online.

While these efforts may seem extreme, specific protections for Olympic intellectual property rights are not new. In Australia, the Olympic Insignia Protection Act 1987 (Cwlth) provides that the Australian Olympic Committee owns the copyright in, and design of, the olympic symbol (being the five interlocking rings) and has a monopoly over the commercial use of protected olympic expressions (such as “Olympics”, “Olympic Games” and “Olympiad”). There is a similar legislative framework in the UK under the London Olympic Games and Paralympic Act 2006 and the Olympic Symbol (Protection) Act 1995. Arguably the social media restrictions are just a further step in efforts by Olympic organising committees to protect their brand and the lucrative sponsorship and broadcasting agreements which serve to fund the Games. For those participating in London 2012, or lucky enough to have tickets to the events, these restrictions may curtail your social media habit. But for those of us who will be watching from the comfort of the couch, these new rules are unlikely to dampen our enjoyment as we cheer on our favourites. Thirty-nine days and counting…